VDI comes of age in the age of uncertainty

By Sammy Zoghlami, SVP EMEA, Nutanix

These strange times call for innovative approaches to productivity. Desktop virtualisation isn’t new, but it’s the right solution at a time when the ability to move fast is prized

The current pandemic means not knowing when the coronavirus crisis will end, how severe the pending recession/depression will become nor what the new normal will look like. And it is driving some rapid changes in thinking about IT operations.

Suddenly, a lot of the clichés and staples of conference chatter about being agile, flexible, adaptive and so on are the brutal reality. And those that ignored all this, those stuck with legacy IT and recalcitrant processes and those who didn’t build to be able to change processes on the fly, are finding out the hard way that they really should have done.

If we look at the ways that the pandemic has changed the IT consensus of wisdom, some are predictable. Cloud computing continues to grow quickly and will only accelerate in today’s climate. In November 2019, Gartner predicted that public cloud sales would grow by 17 percent in 2020 to be worth over $226bn, but even that might be conservative. The ability to test and deploy new applications and services quickly, and then only charge per usage, is an obvious fit for our times when organisations must move fast and closely correlate spending with near-term value.

Similarly, mobile computing tallies nicely with the need to have more employees working from home. Mobile is also a good intersection with cloud, as users can access services via a browser from any device and from any location with connectivity. Security is a third area where the need to enable remote workers will doubtless see expenditure on VPNs and endpoint security. IDC sees CAGR of 9.4 percent to 2023, although coronavirus dictates that all bets are off.

Fourth, collaboration will be emphasised as teams that are no longer able to physically mingle or travel will need to use virtual tools to share and brainstorm. Gartner sees the space almost doubling between 2019 and 2013 to be worth $4.8bn by the end of that period. A particular sweet spot here is collaboration environments with very strong security platforms, hence a possible rise in companies such as Box and Wire.

In this article I want to propose that another category be added to the list: virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI. VDI, sometimes known as desktop virtualisation, allows devices connected to a network to access resources such as applications that have traditionally sat on hard drives. VDI is a boon for any company that needs to adapt sharply because it effectively gives employees the chance to work from a familiar environment, regardless of the device they’re using. There’s no need for dedicated thin-client hardware; devices can be quickly set up for VDI, so it’s possible for users to deploy their own sanctioned BYOD device, but also any desktop PC, laptops, tablets or smartphone that’s handy, even if it is an older model with limited compute capacity, memory or storage.

And, because admins have remote control over a centralised server environment, the process is safer and policies can be sent to block risky user actions. Deployment is rapid and safe, with updates and patches applied in the background and with granular permission levels that can be set for different users or categories of users. Backup and business continuity are relatively simple because of that central control, so even in the event of a massive disruption, productivity can quickly return. So, even if your continuity plans were lacking and you had no VDI environment before stay-at-home orders were issued, it’s not too late.

VDI is far from new. It dates back decades to the advent of Citrix and server-based computing then Microsoft Windows Terminal Server. Older readers might also see links between VDI and the pre-client/server model of dumb terminals hanging off mainframe hosts. But there are many differences in cost, capability, capacity and control: the ‘four Cs’ that make VDI so attractive today.

Gone are limitations such as graphics capabilities that were once a weak spot for the model, as GPU slicing on servers provides fast graphics capabilities to client devices. In fact, such is the evolution of VDI that many experts are now dispensing with the terminology altogether and talking about it in the context of end-user computing, or EUC, as a fluid approach where the user can access the same resources across multiple devices without compromising security.

Every technology needs not just robust capabilities and the right price tag, but also a time when everything aligns to lead to popular success. Today, VDI is a niche, albeit a sizable one, but the trends are coalescing nicely to match its strengths. Writing even before the pandemic, Shannon Kalvar, research director, IT service management and client virtualisation software at analyst IDC, wrote:

“As more enterprises undergo digital transformation to the 3rd Platform of computing — comprising cloud, mobility, big data/analytics, and social business — the mechanisms by which we access business process and data have shifted. Part of that shift has been the growing capability of virtual client computing to meet graphically intensive applications in a seamless fashion. In the future, as clients abstract into endpoints integrated with the environment, virtual clients will play a vital role in stable engagement with the digital organisations’ intelligent core.”

Those technology trends certainly play in VDI’s favour, but I have the sense that the pandemic will be a turning point for VDI because, once everyone from CIOs and CEOs to end-users gets a taste for VDI, the benefits will become apparent very quickly. In short, VDI offers a highly economical, secure and effective way to deploy client infrastructure and it will be a win-win for the enterprise in this age of uncertainty: a time when the enterprise needs exactly this sort of nimbleness and fluidity.

Related reading